David Brooks’ bad example

Update (4:10 p.m. ET): Here’s some data (from EPI analysis of the Current Population Survey) on the share of those employed lacking a high school diploma or a GED certificate, labeled “less than high school,” by race/ethnicity and immigration status:

Share of employment with ‘less than high school’ education, 2011


All Native Immigrant
All 8.4% 5.1% 25.9%
White* 4.2% 4.1% 6.0%
Black* 7.2% 6.7% 10.6%
Hispanic 28.6% 11.6% 44.3%
* Excluding Hispanics

Note that just 4.1 percent of the native born white workforce is in this category. Only 5.1 percent of employment of all native-born Americans lacks a high school degree or a GED, with a slightly higher share among employed native-born blacks (6.7 percent).

Original post: I was struck by David Brooks’ example of bad behavior in his New York Times column today, writing, “I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.” Paul Krugman was struck by that same sentence. Brooks’ assumption, I guess, is that many workers have low wages because they never completed high school. He’s not alone in thinking that there are a lot of high school dropouts, but this is definitely not true. As the graph shows, the share of the workforce (ages 18-64) who have neither a high school or further degree (including a GED) has dropped tremendously in the last four decades, from 28.5 percent in 1973 to just 8.4 percent in 2011, a trend true among men as well as women. Oh, by the way, half of the “high school dropouts” in the workforce are immigrants, many of whom did not go to school in the United States and came here in their teens or later. You definitely can’t blame the erosion of workers’ wages on their failure to graduate from high school, since the vast majority did.

In fact, the education levels of our workforce have grown tremendously. As another example, the share of the workforce with a college degree or further education has doubled since 1973, growing from 14.6 percent in 1973 to one-third in 2011. And, by the way, the wages of those with a college degree (but no further education) have not increased in inflation-adjusted terms in 10 years, neither in the last recovery between 2002 and 2007 nor since. I wonder what bad behavior on their part caused this to happen.